A June 8 headline in the Star Tribune called an area in north Minneapolis “the battle zone.” I call it my home, as do more than 1,000 families and 2,300 children who are enrolled in the Northside Achievement Zone (NAZ). Many families in the NAZ, especially children, face a complex web of challenges. North Minneapolis is ground zero for the racial disparities that have made Minnesota dead last in the nation for gaps in academic achievement, homeownership and household income.
Yet, despite the obstacles, thousands of north Minneapolis parents and children are building the foundations for successful lives. Today I see evidence that my neighborhood is becoming a zone in which achievement — especially academic achievement among our kids — is increasingly valued. And college is now an expectation.
A collaborative of 43 organizations and schools, collectively known as the NAZ, is using innovative methods to close the achievement gap. And though our effort launched in its current form in 2012, we already have built one of the most comprehensive solutions to the achievement gap in the country.
Early on, we told the community that we would hold ourselves accountable to results and be transparent in reporting our progress. Any business will tell you that leading innovation comes with challenges. It’s in this space — where we hold up both what’s working and what isn’t — that breakthrough results happen.
From the beginning, we recognized the importance of a two-generation approach. We work with both parents and their children to make lasting progress. Supporting the entire family to succeed is critically important, because when parents provide stable homes, their children are able to focus on learning.
We also recognized that schools can’t do it alone, so we surround students with a team that provides everything from extra academic opportunities, parent education and early childhood services to behavioral health counseling, housing and career support. In partner schools where the supports are most layered for NAZ students, they are doing significantly better than their peers in reading.
Any community in the nation would celebrate kids being 2½ times more likely to be ready for kindergarten than their peers. To achieve that goal with kids facing the obstacles challenging many of our north Minneapolis families is nothing short of amazing. Yet this is the outcome being achieved by NAZ children who are enrolled in high-quality early-learning programs and whose parents participate in our parenting classes. Starting kindergarten ready to learn is the first step in closing the achievement gap.
Where do we go from here? Three tasks are paramount:
First, some news stories have suggested that the NAZ may be winding down. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are in transition, though, from our start-up federal funding to sustaining support from the state, the city, and corporate and private philanthropy. Sustainability will be supported by a diversity of investments. We believe Minnesotans are sincere when they say they want to close the achievement gap. North Minneapolis needs their support.
Second, we need to make the same gains in math proficiency that we are demonstrating in reading and kindergarten readiness. Evidence shows that third grade is a benchmark that is as important to reading as it is to math. A child who learns fractions by grade three is far more likely to have long-term success in math. With the growing need for students educated in STEM subjects — science, technology, engineering and math — failure is not an option.
And third, there is a high bar for the NAZ. We have built close partnerships with families, schools and other organizations, and the collaboration is working. The challenge only grows harder, though, as we continue to engage families who are more difficult to reach and children who are further behind than their peers. In doing so, we will continue to hold ourselves accountable and be transparent in sharing the results.
I’m incredibly hopeful about the future of my home — north Minneapolis. I am also a realist. When a 10-year-old child doesn’t feel safe in her own bedroom, as the Star Tribune story shared, that child faces barriers to success that are foreign to most Minnesotans. Yet many of these kids and their families are succeeding.
Their success will truly make our state a place where there is an achievement zone for all.
Sondra Samuels is CEO of the Northside Achievement Zone.